Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Writer as Bouncer

 Showing up for work as a writer, you face a range of possibilities, which include being stopped at the door by a burly, unfriendly presence who questions your credentials, the bouncer. Of course the bouncer is you, with all your previous memories of the hours of practice, study, and thought involved in causing you to think you could work as a writer.

Never mind that you have found other aspects of work, things you never saw yourself doing under any circumstances, most of all because you had no wish to do anything but write.  Forget entirely the fact that both these other things of work came your way because you were at various times in your life able to finish written pieces, send them out for publication or production/performance.

The thing standing in your way at such moments is that lovely combination of self-status, enthusiasm, and having been sold the literary equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge by that shameless con artist aspect of yourself, your imagination.

Some mornings, you duck under the restraining rope, arrive early, scarcely a sip of coffee down your parched throat, all eager to pick up where you left off. Other mornings, although less sanguine, you are curious to see how well the things you were up to yesterday have held out.

Yet other mornings, you've resolved through degrees of sleep and sleeplessness to bounce the totality of work done on the project to date, certain you had not got its intent in ways that you could live with.

In ideal worlds, worlds you do not write about, you would simply enjoy the last sip of coffee, brush croissant crumbs from your chest, then stride either to your computer or that place where you store your fountain pens, chose a tool, then begin to compose. You do not write about such worlds in full awareness that neither they nor the worlds you write about exist.

At one point in your early years, you could not wait to get to work, the better to describe every notion and idea that ran through your body like a leg cramp. Time has provided you with ways of stopping most of these cramps in their tracks. Time has also provided you with the avuncular advice whispered into your ear that the sort of writing to which you aspire has nothing whatsoever to do with description, everything to do with the evocation of cramps, pangs, temblors,and other mischiefs running through the atmosphere whenever two or more persons gather in the presumptive agenda of purpose.

One individual, whomever she or height be, may well be subject to all these mercurial passions and sea change tides, but one person alone is not enough. There must be more at hand to compound the mischief.

Thus your awareness that you write about mischief, in which you must immerse yourself before you can stride past the Bouncer who sits at your seat before the computer, or who occupies the chair next to the writing surface where your fountain pens await.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


 Whether awake or asleep, you appear as a dithering protagonist on a journey. The journey often has to do with arrival at a particular place to perform a particular task. In either state, wakened or asleep, you are often made aware that you are incapible of performing the designated task. (In one particular dream, your task was to perform the soloist guitar part of Rodrigo's Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra. 

Nevertheless, there you stood, the orchestra behind you, the conductor before you, nodding your entry cue at you. And so you did. At least, you heard the opening guitar theme. But the entire concept so boggled you that you soon awoke, happy in the sense of "hearing" music you admire, relieved you did not have to perform it.)

Other aspects of the journey involve tracking down--tracing--information or understanding, bringing it from either the wakened or dream state to the contrary state. You bring parents, a sibling, a wife, or friends from the remove of death to the dream state, wherein you interact or watch them at some purposeful movement. 

You visit a thrive of animal friends, thrilled once again to be in their presence, where you experience that remarkable sense of connection, the certainty of you knowing their quirks and moods, of theirs in the bonds of companionship. Every bit as splendid to have a dog napping nearby while you wrote as to be out on some seaside or mountain or even neighborhood jaunt. To have a cat with you in dream state triggers the sense of adventure to come.

Wakened experiences often thrust you into that in-between state where you are writing, arranging words, details, consequences. No telling how and when that state will occur--sometimes in the midst of sleep, wherein situations and invented personages will push the dream visions off stage, insinuate themselves for as many "takes" or scenes as necessary in order to get the overall movementback into play.

You are of an age now where there is scarcely any detail that goes off by itself, a lonely outcast on the playground where others play. And yet perhaps this was always the case, but it has taken you this long to recognize it.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Notes on Becoming a Penguin/Random Author

 Some years back, let's say as many years back as fifty, you embarked on an approach at making your living from writing for the expanding massmarket phenomenon known as the paperback novel. You had no thought whatsoever of becoming an editor, taking a paycheck from a publisher. Nor did you consider teaching as an income stream.

In consequence, you were often forced to some of the jobs associated with the starting years of the freelance writer. You variously worked at a parking lot, prepared moribund restaurants for auction, walked dogs, shelved books at a library, wrote screen tests for an aging actor, wrote scenes for LA-area tv shows including a daily equivalent of a concept that eventually became "Laugh-In."

Because of a pal who was able to support himself by writing a novel a month, you developed the discipline of producing pages, daily. Some of these pages were published as written by you, others via a number of pseudonyms, two of which have relevancy here: Craig Barstow and Walt Feldspar. Both these aspects of yourself wrote Westerns, novels taking place in the American West from about 1870 to 1900.

Your current literary agent knew that about you. She also knew an editor from her own days as editor who was looking for titles for a line of Western novels. She also had a client who expressed a wish to write Westerns but wasn't sure how to proceed. Thus the fateful phone call from your agent, asking you to adlib an acceptable outline sketch for a Western novel.

In your earlier writing years, you recognized a significant gap in your ability to tell a story. Plot. You had pretty good characters, reasonable dialogue, narrative that took editors beyond your plotting ability. But a noticeable, even remarkable absence of plotting tools.

Thus you employed two examples of plot, found in short stories of writers not at all like one another, Dashiell Hammett and James Joyce. You reduced the plot beats of Hammett's story, "The Gutting of Cofingal," and Joyce's story, "The Dead," to role models you've more or less consulted each time you begin a new project.

You consulted the Hammett when questioned by your agent, who interrupted you from time to time to record your turns of event, seemingly improvised. Her plan was to show your plot design to her client by way of inspiring him. Inspire, it did, but not to the desired effect. The client, whom you do not know, was not successful in impressing the editor at Penguin/Random.

At three this morning, you were up to pee, awake enough to consider adding a few hundred steps to your daily requirement, sufficient reason to detach your cell phone from the charger and bring it along with you to record your progress.

Through this seeming ramble of paragraphs, you learned at three this morning that your agent, so impressed with your improvised scenario that she submitted it as well as the outline of her other client.

Thus you learned of the Penguin Random editor's approval of your outline.

Your waist and shoe size have not changed since those days you wrote as Craig Barstow. Thus Craig Barstow rides again, with a hitch up to the saddle from Dashiell Hammett.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

In, or How to Get in

 Still savoring the end of a short story from a book by an author you never knew existed before. Then the voice comes, whispers to you a revise of the first line of a scene you've been working on in a venture you've called "Double Standard."

Thursday, January 16, 2020



A quality present in the ending of a scene, chapter, entire novel, entire short story. A dramatic itch awaiting a scratch.

The quality manifests itself in dramatic emotions like question, interest, sadness, reconciliation, grief, sorrow, surprise; sometimes aftertaste from a particular scene evokes a mashup of one or more of these feelings.

Consider aftertaste as the writer's reward to the characters and readers for staying the course of the narrative. If the reader comes away from reading a scene with no feelings about it, the entire scene falls into question. 

NB: There is no room for neutrality in fiction. 

For the scene to earn its place, it must leave at least the aftertaste in the reader of wonderment at what will come next, to which character, and how.


The governing force that drives every character in every story.
Agenda represents what the character wants, becomes the armature about which the other traits of the character winds.  Think Scarlett O'Hara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, then consider her every action in that narrative.

Agenda tells the character how to behave, sometimes in ways not yet clear to the character. The behavior alerts other characters--and the reader--to expectations and suspicions about future activity.

See agenda as the rabbit hole into which the lead characters tumble, as Alice did in her trip to Wonderland. Consider Macbeth in the opening scenes of the play named after him, ambitions covered by what he assumed to be his agenda of loyalty to King Duncan, then read on to see what happens after he got home to discuss his recent promotion with his wife.

Characters who don't want anything don't belong in a story. Even nameless characters have agendas. The crosswalk guard who delays the protagonist wants to get her charges, the school kids, across the street. The pizza delivery person wants a tip. No matter if they have no lines of dialogue; their behavior reveals their agenda, offers the writer the physical vocabulary and narrative tools to portray them.

Agendas in characters may be obvious or hidden, nevertheless they reside in what and how the character acts, thinks, and says.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020



All stories require adversaries in one form or another. The adversary is an individual or group whose interests conflict with those of the principal characters for whatever reason. These individuals often appear more likable than the principal character. No matter; the reader soon learns how these individuals will work tirelessly to prevent the principals from achieving their goals. 

Adversaries often take the form of circumstance, conditions, and conventions, thus aged adults in a youth-oriented culture (or the reverse spin), women with the temerity to run for office in a male-dominated society, any system, whether social/cultural, political, religious, which the principal characters of a narrative believe cannot be beaten.

Adversaries bear close relationship to antagonists and obstacles. 

If you do not have one in your narrative, you do not yet have a story.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020



A useful loan from firefighters, where an accelerant adds momentum and direction to a fire already in progress. Think of story as a considerable force, already in progress, then look for a potential fuel to enhance it. Characters such as Iago, in Shakespeare's Othello, Milo Minderbinder, in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Rebeca Sharp in William M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair accelerate the forces of impending mischief in their respective narratives.  By its inherent, striated nature, social class offers the fiction writer opportunities to add momentum to narrative. Many of Thomas Hardy's novels use social class and its conventions to force characters to even more intense behavior. Hardy's Tess of the Durbervilles provides a significant example of accelerated dramatic force. Jude the Obscure emphasizes the potential for evoking forces that prevent a character from achieving a stated goal.
Settings and scenery offer yet additional chances for acceleration of narrative. Consider the details of Pip's life when he lives with his sister and brother-in-law in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. Compare them with the surroundings Pip encounters on his visit to the estate of Miss Faversham. For an instructive treatise on how the details of setting and scenery provide accelerant, consult Zadie Smith's White Teeth.

HINT: Let no character or character's agenda, no locale or object enter a narrative without a demonstrable potential for service as an accelerant.